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What’s the charge? Curious artifacts wash up on Shell Key

Bill DeYoung



More than a dozen of these two-inch aluminum plates have been discovered on the Shell Key beach, and in the shallow water. Photos provided.

All sorts of things wash up on the beaches of St. Petersburg’s barrier islands, particularly in the wake of a storm, when the Gulf of Mexico is still churning and more inclined to give up its secrets.

Shell Key, a 195-acre island about 10 minutes – as the boat runs – south of Pass-a-Grille, is the largest parcel of land in the uninhabited, 1,800-acre Shell Key Preserve archipelago. Numerous small excursion boats ferry visitors to the area on a daily basis, island hopping in the sun and keeping an eye out for dolphins along the way, and anchoring for beachcombing and shallow-water, low tide snorkeling.

Vinnie Fugett, self-portrait at Egmont Key.

Vinnie Fugett, who operates Captain Vinnie’s Boat Tours, reports that his customers have been discovering more than shells; on the sand and in the clear water, the Gulf has been coughing up small aluminum plates, not unlike military dog tags, with names (and sometimes addresses) of local residents stamped into the metal.

Each plate measures 2 ½ by 1 ¼ inches.

“Over the past year, they’re being found more and more commonly,” reports Fugett, who’s been running tours to the island, and to the nearby ruins of Fort Dade on Egmont Key, for 11 years.

“And I’ve had other people reach out to me and say they’ve found them at Shell Key. Usually in the middle part of the island, as opposed to the north and south ends.”

After more than a dozen of the odd little plates turned up, some encrusted with barnacles, Fugett turned to social media to see if anyone could give them a proper ID.

And the answer: They’re Charga-Plates, the forerunner of the modern credit card, circa 1935-1950. Each came with its own tiny leather wallet, and a card with the purchaser’s name, address and other pertinent information. The plate would be snapped into a small inker and manual roller, which would copy the information onto a paper receipt.

There were no “card numbers.”

Department stores and other merchants sometimes kept these on file for regular customers, particularly those with expense accounts (who therefore made frequent purchases).

An original, with case. Photo: DigiBarn Computer Museum.

According to the National Museum of American History, the Charga-Plate was trademarked by Boston’s Farrington Manufacturing Company and was in use all over the country. (On the reverse side of the Shell Key discoveries can be clearly made out: Charga-Plate @ Credit Token” and “A Farrington Product.”

Among the flotsam, jetsam, animals, vegetables and minerals Fugett and his customers have encountered at Shell Key, the 70-year + Charga-Plates might be the most unusual.

Or maybe not. “We found a Go-Pro washed up, that had been in the water for six years,” he said. “It still worked.”

Originally known as Bunces Pass, Shell Key Preserve is a county-owned park accessible only by boat. According to the Pinellas County Government website: “Shell Key is one of the state’s most important areas for shorebird nesting and wintering and serves as an important study area for these species. It also is an important recreational area. Restricting the public to the northern and southern ends of the island helps balance both uses. A central core area for conservation is closed to the public.”

MORE ABOUT SHELL KEY HISTORY: Vintage Pinellas: The enigma of Captain Wilson Hubbard

Shell Key Preserve. Photo: Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.












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1 Comment

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    Jeff Allen

    June 9, 2024at10:28 am

    Good morning Bill,

    Interesting article on the Charga-Plates.

    Any clue as to how they all ended up in the water?

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